Between Worlds

A family struggles to save the work of Zanzibar’s greatest poet.
Image of the poet Haji Gora Haji walking outside in Tumbatu.

Haji Gora Haji talks to ghosts. At nearly 85, he’s one of Zanzibar’s most revered elders, and the archipelago’s unofficial poet laureate. He spends his mornings in a bed draped with mosquito nets, his mind wandering between the real world of his small, sun-baked room in Bububu, a fishing village five miles north of Zanzibar’s capital city, and the imagined world of the dead.

“My father has returned to a state of childhood, as it’s written in the Koran,” says his son, also named Haji, now in his early 40s. “It’s our duty to care for him and make sure [he] is remembered.” 

In addition to ghosts, a lifetime of memorized poetry swirls through Haji Gora’s mind, including “Kimbunga” (The Hurricane), his poem about Zanzibar’s violent revolution. He often breaks off in mid-conversation to quote lines:

A hurricane once arrived,
In this town of Siyu
Not only for this person nor for that,
It was chaos
It uprooted the baobabs,
But left the palm trees
The hearts were troubled.

Rocks flew,
They rolled over and over
Big ships sank,
Outriggers were saved
With this violent hurricane
No dust flew
The hearts were troubled.

Haji Gora’s contributions to Swahili poetry, and to the language itself, are enormous. He’s best known for Kimbunga, his debut, published in 1994. He has since published six more books, including Utenzi wa Visa vya Nabii Suleiman bin Daudi (The Epic of Prophet Suleiman, Son of Daud) and Siri ya Ging’ingi (The Secrets of Ging’ingi), as well as five children’s books, all released in the early 2000s. In 1999, he represented Swahili poetry at the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam. And in 2006, he developed the first dictionary of Kitumbatu, a dialect spoken on the island of Tumbatu, a half-hour boat ride from the shores of northern Unguja, where he was born. 

Despite his many achievements, Haji Gora lives in poverty and virtual isolation. His health is in decline, and those who recognize his work’s significance are pondering how to preserve his legacy. Two of his sons, Ali and Haji, have taken on primary care duties in their Bububu home. Ali, a gregarious 28-year-old who recently completed two poetry manuscripts of his own, makes sure his phone is constantly charged so he can be his father’s point of contact. Haji, a soft-spoken former Islamic teacher, has power of attorney over his father’s estate. Together, the two brothers dream of someday starting the Haji Gora Haji Foundation to promote and archive their father’s work, with a little library and an office near their home in which to showcase their father’s books and host poetry events. Without funding, though, the idea remains a pipe dream.

The family—10 of Haji Gora’s children are still alive—hopes that two recent books will generate income. Maisha ya Haji Gora (The Life of Haji Gora) is a biography by Zanzibari journalist Ally Saleh, published in 2016, and Shuwari (The Calm), edited by Flavia Aiello Traoré and Irene Brunotti, is a collection of Haji Gora’s latest work slated for publication later this year. Although Ally Saleh’s book has brought little income so far, Haji Gora negotiated a contract with the publisher—signed at a public ceremony in January of 2018—that entitles him to a certain percentage of the royalties while he’s still alive. After his death, his family and Ally Saleh will split the profits.

Even if the books do make some money, there’s little precedent in Zanzibar for how to nurture an artist’s legacy. Haji Gora’s family points to the fate of legendary musician Fatuma binti Baraka, known as “Bi Kidude.” Hailed as Zanzibar’s beloved “songbird,” Bi. Kidude died penniless in April of 2013, well into her hundreds. Her estate was mired in controversy over who owned the rights to her work and her image. Plans for a Bi. Kidude Music Scholarship for girls and women, as well as a Bi. Kidude Visitors Center in the singer’s former home, unraveled. Haji Gora’s family fears a similar outcome for him.

Because some of Haji Gora’s early work doesn’t exist in definitive editions, or any editions at all, it’s in danger of disappearing entirely, taking with it more than a half-century of Zanzibar’s cultural heritage. “Haji Gora is not only [Zanzibar’s] oldest living writer in terms of age but also in terms of the art form itself,“ the writer Ally Hilal tells me. “We cannot move forward promoting [our] literature without first going back and looking at ancient literature. If we lose a man like Haji Gora, we risk losing the richest, oldest, broadest examples of this art form, and today’s youth will never see it unless we preserve it, and learn from it. Future writers of Zanzibar deserve to know the brilliance of Haji Gora. The future of Zanzibari literature depends on it.”


Like most children who grow up in Tumbatu, Haji Gora’s life was defined by the sea. He was born, by most accounts, in 1933 (without a birth certificate, no one knows the exact date) and learned to read the rhythms of the waves long before he ever picked up pen and paper. His father, Gora Haji, was a respected sea captain and fisherman; his mother, Mize Mjumbe Juma, was a homemaker. Although Haji Gora never formally learned to read or write, a childhood friend taught him the alphabet, and Haji Gora attended madrassa to study the Koran. (Zanzibar is overwhelmingly Muslim.) As Ally Saleh notes, Haji Gora “begged and borrowed” literacy lessons until he could read and write on his own.

When he was four, Haji Gora moved to Empire, a bustling neighborhood in the historic city of Stone Town, Unguja (Zanzibar’s main island), whose namesake was a popular cinema that screened Hollywood films. As a teen, he’d sneak into the Empire Cinema to watch American exports such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, then head to the baraza (long stone benches) to sip strong black coffee and chat with friends well into the evening. They played bao, a board game popular along the Swahili Coast, and relished the sea breeze that brought relief after the day’s sweltering heat.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Haji Gora moved frequently between quiet Tumbatu and chaotic Stone Town, finding inspiration for his early poetry in both places. These were the days when the sultans still reigned, although the British also claimed administrative rule over Zanzibar. Political upheaval and revolution came in 1963, with only a single month of freedom as an independent nation before Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika in 1964 to become what’s today known as the United Republic of Tanzania.

While Zanzibar’s political landscape has shifted over the decades, Swahili coastal culture and tradition have remained central to island life. Haji Gora traces his love of language to ngoma, a hypnotic and exuberant drumming that hails from Congo. It’s a Bantu tradition that spread to Zanzibar via a harrowing history of slavery and trade between inland Africa and the Swahili coast, as well as the Arab Peninsula. There are various forms of ngoma, each with its own rhythms and sounds, but Haji Gora was drawn to Ngoma ya Kibati, which features quick, improvised dialogue set to drums while singers and dancers punctuate the rhythms with choral lines.

In his late teens, Haji Gora joined Zige and Ngambwa, two Tumbatu-based competitive drumming crews. The drumbeat triggered extemporized verse intended to set the record straight or to publicly call out those who had somehow crossed the line. He composed hundreds of lyrics ranging from long-winded dialogues to sharp tercets, many of which were never written down and exist only in Haji Gora’s memory:

Do Not Drink

Do not drink the whole world, you should share it with others
Imam have their curses, and followers also have their curses
The world has gone dark, because of humanity’s actions

Human Beings Are Not Good

Human beings are not good, certainly they are not good
The one you trust, and show mercy on him
You confide your secret, and in their heart is a choking lump of grudge

There wasn’t much money in ngoma, but Haji Gora continued to compose and perform while working as a porter at the Malindi port in Stone Town. In the late 1950s, he was invited to join Michenzani Social Club, and later the Nadi Ikhwan Safaa Club, Zanzibar’s oldest Taarab orchestra, founded in 1905. Taarab, derived from an Arab word meaning “to be moved” or “agitated,” is a music of soulful lament. A blend of Middle Eastern and African styles, Taarab first arrived in Zanzibar in the 1870s courtesy of Omani Sultan Barghash, who dispatched the musician Mohamed Ibrahim to Egypt to study Egyptian music and learn to play the zither. Mohamed Ibrahim returned to Zanzibar and formed the first Zanzibar Taarab Orchestra. The languid music captivated Zanzibaris and, over time, Taarab became synonymous with the islands.

Haji Gora composed hundreds of Taarab lyrics that combine romantic sentimentality with his keen interest in politics and philosophy. Written mostly in standard three-line split verse with slant end-rhymes, these lyrics were set to music played by grand orchestras in music halls all over the island. While Haji Gora continued to work as a porter, Taarab remained a creative touchstone.

Beginning in the 1960s, his lyrics played over Zanzibari radio, sung by many of the island’s most famous Taarab performers. “Dunia Rangi Mbili” (Two-Faced World) is considered Haji Gora’s first formal composition, written in 1959. The singer Khamis Abeid from Zanzibar Town first sang it in 1964, right after the revolution:

Two-Faced World

This two-faced world
Goodness comes first
The world is unpredictable

Lick the honey
People make you feel happy
Your [life] is fulfilled
I remember well
And then there's wickedness
It can turn against you

Raise your dignity
Whatever you say is always right
By whatever you intend to do

Although many of Haji Gora’s Taarab lyrics are paeans to love, his own romantic life has been tumultuous. According to Ally Saleh, Haji Gora was once so distraught by an unrequited love affair that he decided to take his own life. He swam out beyond the reef into deep water. “A few sailors happened to catch [Haji Gora] and called out to him to ask what he was doing there. He didn’t have a good answer, and so they saved his life,” Ally Saleh says. Haji Gora’s romantic ambivalence is evident in “Mpenzi Wangu Mwandani” (My Lover, My Sweetheart) written sometime in the 1960s:

My Lover, My Sweetheart

My love, I greet you
I cannot smile
My state of consciousness:

I have no limit
My anxiety rises
My soul is with yours

Love is punishing me
I've grown thin as thread
I'm decaying with sadness
I greet you, my sweetheart
You're far away, I don't see you
Overwhelmed with love

I am crying goodbye
I don't know what to do
Show me some faith

For loving someone like you
Constantly thinking of you
Return to my dream

“We see through Haji Gora that art is emotional and emotions are the basis of his poetry,” Ally Hilal says. “What drives Haji Gora is a feeling. What drives Haji Gora is his environment. That’s what he lives on: Humanity—our actions, our nature, our worlds.”

As his fame grew among Taarab aficionados, Haji Gora also gained a reputation as one of the fiercest word-slingers in a unique form of poetry known along the Swahili Coast as mashairi ya malumbano, or poetry of confrontation. In these weekly word battles—similar to the Dozens, a competitive exchange of insults common in African-American communities—poets throw out a challenge, a riddle, or a provocation in verse via local newspapers or on radio. Poets who see or hear their names mentioned inevitably respond the following week with a comeback of their own. The weekly exchanges continue “until the challenge is naturally exhausted,” Ally Saleh says. These verses are dramatically recited as songs whose cadence follows strict rules defined by the vina (end sounds), mizani (syllabic count), and bahari (prosodic category).

The form has been popular in East Africa for centuries as a way to impress, educate, debate, and above all, play with words. In the 1980s and ’90s, it was an essential, and socially sanctioned, way to address HIV, domestic violence, unemployment, and other taboo issues. One of Haji Gora’s most famous compositions, “Mke Hapigwi Kwa Fimbo” (Don’t Beat Your Wife with a Stick), champions women’s rights, a bold position at odds with Zanzibari customs. Haji Gora’s fame spread as he responded to his challengers with clever taunts and recitations. In some of his most unusual work, broadcast on radio in 1998, he and the poet Juma Machano debated the existence of chunusi. In Swahili folklore, chunusi are invisible sea creatures that lurk underwater and are believed to drown swimmers.

Machano asks:

In the name of G-d, I begin
This is not the first time
Despite my question
What kind of creature is a ‘Chunusi’
In the name of the most righteous
Dealing with this sort of thing
I beg you all to receive me
And where does it live?

Haji Gora responds:

Agitator, I have come
On Zanzibar Radio
You asked about ‘Chunusi’?
Listen without waiting
Quickly without disdain
The master I am appearing
My answer will explain
He is a jinn.

In the early 1990s, Haji Gora set out to collect his handwritten poetry, most of which was Taarab lyrics, into a manuscript he titled Kimbunga. Encouraged by a few professors at the State University of Zanzibar, he shared his unpublished work with Ali Mwalimu Rashid, then-director of the Department for Research and Publishing at the university. “I knew when I read his manuscript that Haji had talent and more creativity than anyone I’d ever encountered,” Ali Mwalimu Rashid says. Haji Gora was eventually connected to University of Dar es Salaam Publishing, which released Kimbunga in 1994. Thus began the second act of a man whom many Zanzabaris already considered the greatest Swahili poet alive.


In 2015, when he was in his early 80s, Haji Gora was hit by a car while making his regular rounds in Darajani, Stone Town’s sprawling bazaar. He suffered a broken leg, and reluctantly moved out of town to heal in a nearby village, where his family could look after him. The city’s social labyrinth had always fed Haji Gora’s creativity, but his family insisted that he needed close supervision during his recovery.

As Haji Gora’s leg mended, his mind began to unravel. His family lodged him in a simple room without a radio or a mobile phone, his two lifelines, arguing that he would get lost if he ventured outside alone. They tucked away his notebooks and pens. The family believes Haji Gora can no longer write the way he used to and that his mind should rest. Six months after moving to the country, Haji Gora started talking to invisible people and creatures.

“Some of his notebooks [containing handwritten works-in-progress] got lost during moves or were damaged by children,” Ali tells me with a regretful shrug. The brothers keep their father’s remaining notebooks safe in the family home. When I visited in November of 2017, however, Haji Gora waited until his sons left the room and then confessed that he longs to write again. In a rare moment of lucidity, he requested that I bring him a good pen.

“I worry that he’s a bit alone,“ says Nathalie Arnold Koenings, a scholar and translator who first met Haji Gora when she was a 24-year-old Swahili literature student in Zanzibar. “I want to tell his friends: the Agitator is still with you! Make the time to visit him, tell him all the news. Take him into town to his favorite baraza, let him chat and take in all the human goings-on that are at the heart of poetry for him. Let’s thank him, care for him, and love him while we can. He’s given so much, he shouldn’t be forgotten.”

“Kimbunga,” Haji Gora’s most renowned poem, appeared several times on Tanzania’s national exams for A-Level students, although Haji Gora has received royalties from the University of Dar es Salaam Press only once, and only after extensive lobbying by Ridder Samsom, one of his oldest friends. This surprises Ali Mwalimu Rashid of the State University of Zanzibar, who tells me the book has been sold to thousands of students all over Tanzania and has been reprinted many times. The younger Haji traveled to Dar es Salaam last year to confirm what is owed to his father, but he didn’t have power of attorney then and was denied information. When he returned a second time with papers confirming his legal right to represent his father, the university promised to send an official letter with further details. Weeks later, Haji Gora received a letter from the university directing the family to send complaints to the government.

Even when Haji Gora is paid, however, there isn’t enough money in literature to make ends meet. His two most popular children’s books see yearly reprints of 300 to 700 copies, according to Fatma Shangazi, the country director of Oxford University Press in Dar es Salaam. “We pay authors their royalties two times a year, in December and June,” Shangazi says. “Haji Gora Haji deserves 10 percent of net sales, and his books sell for 3,300 shillings [$1.50 USD]. According to our accounts, Haji earned 256,000.10 [$116 USD] as of December 2017.”

Such scant payouts don’t jibe with the exalted status in which Haji Gora is held on the islands. “[He] is the measure by which I judge not just my own abilities as a writer, but how I am, who I am, in the world,“ Koenings says. “I hope so much that those who love him—and we are so many in Zanzibar, in East Africa, and all over the world—can get together, coordinate in some way, to ensure the preservation of his legacy and also let him know, thoroughly and truly, how much he’s meant to us.”


While in Zanzibar, I often meet Ali at the chaotic bus stand in Darajani Market at the edge of Stone Town. Without him, I get lost on the sandy footpaths that wind toward the family home, tucked behind the main road among clusters of cement-brick buildings, small farms, and one-room mosques with hand-painted tin signs praising Allah.

On the packed daladala (Zanzibar’s public minivans), Ali breaks into poetic song in between talking about his father’s legacy. He shakes his head at his own prospects, fearing that his life will play out much like his father’s: word-rich but cash-poor. When he was around 20 years old, Ali recited his original poems on the local radio programs Tunga Njema (Good Compositions) and Mashairi Yetu (Our Poets), but doing so required a payment of 2,000 shillings (approximately 85 cents) per poem.

“The radios want poets to pay because they claim they are marketing us by featuring our work. This didn’t add up to me,” Ali says. He’s banking on the internet and a wider international network of friends to help him establish a more viable career as a writer. His family has also considered turning to the internet to promote and sell Haji Gora’s work, but internet access is cost-prohibitive and spotty in Zanzibar. In 2016, only about 13 percent of Tanzania had internet access.

Once we arrive at the house, we greet Haji Gora with the traditional salutation for a respected elder: “Shikamoo,” to which he replies, “Marhaba” (“You are welcome”). He sits upright in bed, dressed in a dark grey kanzu and his classic hand-embroidered yellow and beige kofia, tipped slightly to the right. Ali leaves for a moment and returns proudly brandishing Mwana Mkiwa, his first poetry manuscript, which contains 55 poems about a young woman wrestling with the stigma of HIV. He describes his second manuscript, Wanga Wanasokotana, as “political poetry” written to call out “the bad wolves in the forest” of Zanzibar’s government.

“My father read and corrected the first one, but I haven’t even printed the second one yet, and anyway, my father isn’t in the right mind to give me feedback now,” Ali says.

During our visit, Haji Gora obsessively refers to the Empire neighborhood and insists that he still has a home there. In fact, the home he lived in is long gone, as are many of the people he grew up with. His mind loops with memories from the deep past, perhaps indicating dementia, although he’s not been diagnosed. He still recognizes visitors, including government officials who come by to pay their respects, but he’s easily distracted by a chorus of the dead.

I want to dig into Ali’s manuscript and ask questions about his process, but just as we begin to talk, Haji Gora startles from the bed, calls to his ghosts, and bolts to the door.

“Let him go,” Ali says.

Haji Gora stands by the door, where he wanders again through Stone Town, at least in his mind. He often refers to imaginary meetings with scholars and publishers. It seems he wants to get back to the business of poetry, his enduring love, but is waylaid on this threshold, a man between two worlds.

Translation of “Kumbunga” by Rhiannon Stephens and Ridder “Ridha” Samsom. All other translations by the author.

Originally Published: August 20th, 2018

Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein is a poet, writer, and editor who splits her time between Chicago and Zanzibar. She has written for Al Jazeera English, Public Radio International, CNN, Atlas Obscura, Global Voices, and National Public Radio, among others. Her literary work has appeared in Lillith, Hypertext, Proximity, Punch Drunk Press,...